Dear Fr. The Gospel is simple and clear, but you clergy explain it so much that no one can understand it any more. I appreciate your brief comments on the daily gospel, and that it why I write to you - you may have some influence with your colleagues. The clergy hedges everything around with conditions and qualifications till we can no longer see the Jesus of the Gospels. You limit his mercy. "Has no one condemned you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). In Hebrews 8 we read that God not only forgives sin but forgets ("I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more"). We read it also in Isaiah and Jeremiah. What a fine message, the mercy of God. -Our sins are forgiven and forgotten, disappear in the ocean of God's mercy. We will never be confronted with them again even on judgement day. But then you clerics get to work. Wait a minute, you say! Don't forget the "temporal punishment due to sin", even if you think you're safe from eternal punishment. And did your repentance satisfy all the conditions? And did you have a proper purpose of amendment......? No wonder many people of my generation were tortured with scruples - and some still are. No wonder people have such doubts, such uncertainty, and now such indifference. Please comment. Geoffrey Pinfield
Dear Mr Pinfield,
Yes, we Scribes and Pharisees have a lot to answer for. I remember (vaguely I'm afraid) a Herman Hesse novel in which a deceased musician's enjoyment of eternal bliss was greatly diminished by a multitude of little black and white entities that followed him around constantly. What were they? They were all the superfluous notes he had ever played. A similar fate, I'm afraid, awaits all of us who spend our lives talking.
The case you mention is the weightiest of all possible cases: downplaying the mercy of God. The revelation of God's mercy is the centrepiece of our faith, and nothing should be allowed to "hedge it around"; on the contrary everything should serve only to set it off. I remember a poem (again imperfectly: I don't have the book) by the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, a rare one from him about Jesus; or rather I remember the refrain.
Love - he said; and Truth - he said.
But his dearest word was Mercy.
Baxter's own life and death were a challenge to the Christians around him. He had had some kind of conversion experience that changed him from a glitterato to a tramp. Early one morning as he walked barefooted on a street he had a heart attack. There was nobody around, but he managed to drag himself up the steps of a religious house and ring the doorbell. Someone opened the door, looked down and saw what appeared to be a drunkard on the ground, and closed the door again. Baxter died on the steps, experiencing no human mercy in his last moments. If we ever downplay the mercy of God, it must be that we are measuring mercy by a low standard of our own. Human beings are often indifferent and merciless: the mind can dedicate itself to vengeance (calling it justice) and become a stranger to mercy. Witness the support that still exists in many quarters for capital punishment. The Church too has often been a stranger to mercy: the Papal States had their own hangman until 1870.
But the point you make is not about practice (in which everyone is a bit of a failure) but about teaching. What is the meaning of "temporal punishment due to sin"? May I quote a passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church? "Grave sin deprives us of communion with God, and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the 'eternal punishment' of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the 'temporal punishment' of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin" (p 331f).
If you say that a lifelong cigarette-smoker is now 'punished' with lung cancer and heart disease, you are not suggesting that God is laying into him; you are saying that he is suffering the inevitable consequences of smoking. You are talking about the law of cause and effect. The passage just quoted describes 'punishment' for sin in the same way. In various ways sin destroys our capacities: it brutalises our sensibility, pollutes the mind, weakens the will. This is not even to mention the damage it does to others. Through sin we become incapable of God and of proper human living. 'Karma' is a word that is frequently heard nowadays and little understood. But this teaching is closer to 'karma' than it is to any crude version of 'punishment'. It's a pity that the word 'punishment' is used at all. It calls God a punisher. The word 'Purgatory' comes from the Latin purgare, which means 'to purify', not 'to punish'. The text above interprets Purgatory in this sense.
I might add that the teaching on Purgatory is very far from the ghoulish images it normally suggests. It is in fact a powerful affirmation of God's mercy. In the following way. Our life is for soul-making: we are to become increasingly transparent and purified, we are to become more deeply human and closer to God, we are to 'crystallise' as God's children. If I were told that this process will stop when I die, this could be very bad news for me indeed! Instead, the teaching on Purgatory says that God's mercy does not run out when my clock stops: the purification can continue after death. Purification is generally a painful process, but someone in the state of Purgatory - freed now of the ego's greed and self-interest - must be experiencing joy and gratitude above all else. What a disaster that this should ever have been described as 'punishment'!
I hope these brief comments may help your reflection in some way. May I refer you to the previous section on this website, Wisdom Line, where Meister Eckhart has much to say that is relevant to your question.